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Record number of homeless children enrolled in US public schools (+video)

Nearly 1.3 million homeless children and teens were enrolled in schools in the 2012-13 school year, an 8 percent increase from the previous school year – and an 85 percent increase since the beginning of the recession.

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First lady Michelle Obama helps fill backpacks with items to give to homeless children on Sept. 11 at the Inspired Teaching School in northeast Washington. The number of homeless children enrolled in public schools hit a record 1.3 million in 2012-13, the Education Department said.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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A record number of homeless students were enrolled in US public schools last year, according to new numbers released Monday by the Department of Education.

The data – which most experts say underreport the actual number of homeless children in America – showed that nearly 1.3 million homeless children and teens were enrolled in schools in the 2012-13 school year, an 8 percent increase from the previous school year.

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The number of homeless students has been rising steadily for a number of years, and has increased about 85 percent since the beginning of the recession.

“The data released today confirm what our members see every day – increasing numbers of children and youth struggling to survive without a home,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, in a statement.

According to the breakdown of numbers in the data released, the vast majority of homeless youth – 75 percent – are living "doubled-up," meaning multiple families are living together not by choice. Another 6 percent are in hotels or motels. None of the youths in those categories are recognized as homeless by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), meaning that while those students are eligible for assistance through local schools, they don't qualify for HUD services. A bill currently before Congress would amend the HUD definition to include those additional homeless youth – a priority for a number of children's advocates.

“The new data means that a record number of kids in our schools and communities are spending restless nights in bed-bug-infested motels and falling more behind in school by the day because they’re too tired and hungry to concentrate," said Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, in a statement Monday. "This is a desperate situation, and the first step we must take is to get homeless students the housing assistance they need today by passing the Homeless Children and Youth Act.”

For the first time this year, the Education Department asked schools to report whether homeless students were living with their parents or on their own. Some 6 percent – nearly 76,000 students – were living on their own, a category that homeless advocates say is at particularly high risk for sexual and physical abuse and exploitation.

The data gathered in the report comes from schools, but doesn't include infants and toddlers or homeless children and teens either not enrolled in public school or not identified by school officials.